Cape Dorset * [pop: about1,200]
by John Laird
Along the northwest shore of Dorset Island, surrounded on one side by rocky hills and on the other, by Hudson Strait, lies Cape Dorset – a community that, since the 1950s, has come to be known as the Inuit art capital of the world.
In the distance are the jagged outlines of islands, and the inlets of Baffin Island’s most southern coast. Like most other settlements in Nunavut, Cape Dorset is a modern community, with winding gravel roads, small wooden houses, schools, stores, hotels, a nursing station, government offices and churches. But it is Cape Dorset’s outstanding artists and their printmaking and stone-carving shop that have earned the town renown.
Each year, art lovers and naturalists flock to Cape Dorset to enjoy the treasures of the West Baffin Eskimo Co-operative and to chat with the acclaimed artists who work here. In 1995, then German Chancellor Helmut Kohl made the visit with Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien. Visitors come, as well, to absorb the rich heritage of local Inuit, and to tour the breathtaking arctic landscape with it’s abundance of wildlife. The mallikjuaq Visitors Centre, due to be completed in 1999, displays artifacts portraying the history of Dorset and the Mallikjuaq islands.
“Since long ago” Cape Dorset elder Qupapik Ragee once said of his community “our ancestors called it Kinngait.” Kinngait is the Inuktitut word for “mountains”, describing the steep, rocky ills that overlook the town. The Inuit here are direct descendants of the Thule, who inhabited this region in small groups almost 1,000 years ago. You can explore remnants of their culture – such as stone foundations of their houses – at several sites on Dorset and Baffin islands. In 1925, Diamond Jenness became the first archeologist to identify the remains of an even earlier civilization, the Dorset, who lived here from 800 BC to AD 1300. Other researchers have since discovered artifacts dating back 3,500 years to the pre-Dorset, and even earlier, cultures.
European explorers, who arrived on these shores in the 17th century, were relatively recent visitors. They named the Foxe Peninsula after the English explorer, Luke Foxe. [Dorset Island lies off the south coast of this peninsula.] And they named the Dorset Island to honor his benefactor, the Earl of Dorset. From 1850 to the early 1900s, whalers and missionaries visited the area. In 1913, the Hudson’s bay Co. set up a trading post here. Between 1938 and 1953, two churches, a school and a few houses were constructed. By the mid-1950s, Inuit began to build permanent homes in the area. This marked a major change in their lives, as now they increasingly felt the influence of government.
In 1947, the Nascopie, the supply ship that brought goods to the region from the South, ran aground off the coast of Dorset island. Before she sank the resourceful Inuit salvaged supplies, fuel, and even wood from the ship. They used this wood to construct their homes in Cape Dorset and along the coast of Dorset island.
Today, most local Inuit are engaged in the same activities you might find in any small community in Canada; running businesses, working in offices, and attending school. If you walk the 1.2 kilometres from one end of town to the other, you’ll see a blend of modern and traditional culture – snowmobiles and all-terrain vehicles parked outside homes; caribou and polar bear hides hanging from railings; arctic char drying on racks; and perhaps a frozen seal or two resting on a doorstep. Children laugh and play in the streets, chattering in a steady stream of Inuktitut.
Cape Dorset: Its Land and Wildlife
… work in progress
ALSO SEE About Printmaking
*Reproduced from the Nunavut Handbook